Attendance at the world’s biggest art museums has plummeted

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MANY FANS are used to queues and crowds. In high season, lines at the Louvre in Paris or the Accademia Gallery in Florence can last for hours; once inside, visitors must compete with hordes of other enthusiasts to catch a glimpse of the Mona Lisa or Michelangelo’s David. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to admire the artwork for 30 seconds before another art lover, or a busy staff member, accompanies you.

Such jostling is now a distant memory: like many places of leisure, galleries around the world have fallen silent because of covid-19. An annual survey published March 30 by the Art Newspaper documents the toll of the pandemic. In 2019, the 100 most popular art museums in the world welcomed more than 230 million visitors; in 2020, that number fell to 54 million, a drop of 77%. Cultural institutions were closed for much of the year by lockdowns, but even when they were able to reopen, social distancing measures limited them to 20-30% of their usual capacity. Unsurprisingly, museums located in places where the virus was handled most effectively suffered smaller declines. Yet they still suffered. In Australia and New Zealand, museums attracted 53% fewer visitors in 2020 than in 2019. In North America and Europe, the decline was much steeper: 75% and 72% respectively.

Museums often depend on ticket sales for their revenue, so covid-19 has dealt them a financial blow. At the Louvre, revenue fell by more than €90m ($106m) in 2020; at Britain’s Tate museums, where general admission is free but special exhibitions bring in money, sales fell by £56m ($78m) or 60%. A recent survey by the Network of European Museum Organisations, an industry group, found that 70% of its members plan to make budget cuts in the coming years, even in countries where culture enjoys considerable support from the part of the state.

In America, the Association of Art Museum Directors, another industry organization, has relaxed its rules on “assignment” (i.e. the sale of artwork from a museum collection ) until April 2022 in order to help the places survive. Previously, museums could only remove and sell objects from their collections to purchase other works of art; now the proceeds can go to the “direct care” of the work. This means that bodies have sold notable pieces to raise money to pay staff, among other things. The Brooklyn Museum is auctioning several works in hopes of raising $40 million for an endowment: a sale at Sotheby’s in October, which included a landscape by Claude Monet, brought in $19.9 million.

Great institutions should be able to weather the storm. Smaller and newer ones may not be so lucky. A study of 95,000 institutions by UNESCO, the cultural arm of the United Nations, suggested that 13% may never reopen.

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